Saturday, July 30, 2011

The 2011 Tour de France from a Kendo perspective

Cadel dodges spectators on the Alpe d'Huez stage of the 2011 Tour de France

It was very exciting to watch Cadel become the first Australian to win the Tour de France. In the hundred years of the race only two non-Europeans have ever won the race and both of them were Americans. It is a massive achievement.

There have been some parallels between the way Cadel won and what we aim for in Kendo. He was gracious and humble in victory, just like a Kenshi. He did what was required to win and nothing more. And he saw the precise moment when he needed to act and he acted decisively, throwing everything into it and holding nothing back.

For those of you who didn't watch the race or don't know about it, the Tour de France is three weeks of cycling around France with each day representing one "stage": a distance of anywhere between 50 and 200km, through all kinds of terrain. Some stages are short and run as time trials, with each rider starting at three minute intervals and trying to clock the fastest time for the course. Other stages are much longer as the race travels around the French countryside. There is much riding through mountains where the smaller riders generally have the advantage. And then there are many flatter stretches where the big, powerful riders can take over. Racers compete as part of a team, and each team has a lead rider, who is the one all other members of the team are helping to win. A team member who is not the lead rider will never try and challenge for first place, but rather they will work together with their teammates to prevent other teams' lead riders from beating theirs.

At every stage the rider with the most points based on their time so far is awarded the "Yellow Jersey". Very often the rider with the Yellow Jersey is not the same rider who is the winner of a particular stage, but they are the most consistently fast overall. There are other special jerseys representing those who are currently in the lead in different divisions (white for best young rider, green for best sprinter and white with red polka dots for best climber or "King of the Mountain"). But the Yellow Jersey is the one everyone wants.

Throughout the 2011 Tour de France, Cadel never wore the Yellow Jersey. But he was never further back than third place. Then, on the third last day, on the stage to Alpe d'Huez, Cadel saw some of his rivals stage a breakaway. This is where a rider puts on a sudden and sustained burst of speed in the hope of creating such a gap that they can maintain the lead until the end of the stage. Sometimes this leads to victory and sometimes it just leads to exhaustion. It takes a lot of courage, stamina, and knowing your own body as well as the course to stage a successful breakaway.

When his rivals took off, Cadel was left at the front of the 'Peloton'. The Peloton is the name for the main group of riders and it sticks together a bit like a large flock of birds. The reason for this is that it is much easier to ride behind someone else, than it is to ride by yourself. The lead riders carry you along in their slipstream.

Cadel drags the Peloton up the mountain

When Cadel saw the others charge off into the distance, he was wary of wasting effort to chase them down by himself. He waited to see what the rest of the Peloton would do. Everyone just kept to the same pace as if they were happy to let the breakaway group go. This was where Cadel realised he had to act. In his head he did the calculations about the next two days: tomorrow would be a 42 km timetrial and the day after a slow day where the owner of the Yellow Jersey would, by tradition, remain unchallenged all the way into Paris and the finish line. In other words, Cadel knew that if didn't have the Yellow Jersey by the end of the timetrial he could not win. And he knew that there was a limit to how much time he would be able to make up over a 42 km time trial. If his big rival Andy Schleck put on too much of a lead today, he would never catch him tomorrow. Now was the time he had to give chase, and he would do it by himself if necessary.

Which is what he did. He led the Peloton for more than 15 minutes up through the mountains and managed to keep Schleck's lead down to 57 seconds. Being in front meant he was using far more energy than everyone else, and 15 minutes at top speed riding up a mountain is hard at the best of times. But he had to risk exhausting himself if he was to stay in with a chance. Looking back, this was the moment where his victory was set up. This 15 minutes would prove decisive.

The second last, and most decisive day came and Cadel still wasn't in the Yellow Jersey. He would let someone else have the honour and psychological advantage of wearing it. Perhaps being in yellow would give Schleck the edge in the time trial. But Cadel had timed his run well. In not needing to own the Yellow Jersey, Cadel had not overdone it. He used as much effort as he needed to stay in the top three, now second place, and in doing so had left something in reserve. The time trial would be where he would spend everything he had been saving for the last three weeks.

In the end Cadel not only caught up to Schleck's lead but overtook it by a minute or so. He was so fast that he finished the time-trial with the second fastest time, and finished the day being awarded the Yellow Jersey. That meant so long as he stayed on his bike all the way into Paris, he was the winner.

It's nice to have the Yellow Jersey during the Tour de France, but there's only one day where it really matters who wears it and that's the last day. Cadel let others mind it until he needed it, then he made it his.

Humility, no wasted effort, seizing the opportunity: that's Kendo.



The last stage, the ride into Paris, is traditionally a relaxed affair. Cadel enjoys champagne during the race—how French!